As crises go, Manchester United’s has not been an especially bad one – and it began to look a lot better after the unceremonious destruction of a woeful Tottenham at Old Trafford.
Take a glance at the Premier League table and you’ll see that United, for all the criticism of their defence, have the third-best defensive record. You’ll also note that Louis van Gaal’s team have won more home matches than even runaway leaders Chelsea. Against such a background it’s less of a surprise to find them sudden favourites for at least fourth place and a likely return to the Champions League next season.
Such is United’s financial muscle, and such is the help they receive from UEFA regulations in exercising it to the full, that their restoration to the forefront of the English and European game was only ever going to be a matter of time.
Until recently the fear among their supporters was that the process might have to be measured in years. Van Gaal’s tactics were said to be dour, unexciting and (fiil in a few of the other things once laid at David Moyes’s door), to the extent that his assistant Ryan Giggs was supposed to have joined the ranks of the sceptics. A second season-end without either silverware of a sign of progress was widely forecast.
Yet the response to defeat at Swansea has been three wins in a row without a goal conceded, consolidating United’s top-four status and leaving. They must still look anxiously below, for Liverpool, who can move to within two points of them by winning at Swansea tonight, must be faced at Anfield on Sunday – what a contest that should be - but they can also look upwards now and have the mouth-watering incentives of displacing Arsenal from third spot or even neighbours City from second.
To keep matters in proportion: routine defeats of Sunderland, Newcastle and a distinctly below-par Spurs do not mean the post-Ferguson crisis is over, or anything like it. There must still be vast and intelligent spending – greater than Chelsea brought off last summer, but just as smart – if United are once again to be competitive with the very best at home and overseas, as they were at various stages of the latter half of Sir Alex’s long regime. But Champions League qualification would be a massive help in terms of both morale and quality recruitment.
The likes of Gareth Bale, for instance, would be unlikely to fancy Old Trafford without it. Likewise Cristiano Ronaldo, who has come to regard Europe’s top competition as his domain and will want to keep breaking records in it. So the visit to Anfield is going to be very important and, while a lot of the build-up will inevitably feature one famous Scouser – can Steven Gerrard make a memorable last contribution to English football’s most bitter rivalry? – the condition of another could be just as significant.
Wayne Rooney has slipped back into form just in time to be a possible outside contender for Footballer Of The Year. True, the claims to the award of goalkeeper David de Gea are by far the strongest to come from Old Trafford during the current campaign. But Rooney deserves credit as well. Amid all United’s troubles in adjusting to Van Gaal, he has been an admirably professional captain, playing in midfield when the manager required, and now, restored to the front, he has scored three goals in as many matches, giving him a total of 11 for the League season.
Rooney had his bit of fun after scoring yesterday, his celebrations alluding to a well publicised boxing match in his kitchen during which he appeared to be floored by a Phil Bardsley jab. But might he himself land the knockout punch at Anfield?